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Jim Oberstar: Another of Minnesota's Iconic Figures

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He was the longest serving congressman in Minnesota history until he was upset in 2010 while seeking a 19th term, but Democrat Jim Oberstar will be remembered for more than his longevity.

Oberstar, 79, who died in his sleep May 3 at his home in Potomac, Maryland, joins a long line of Minnesotans who left their mark on the world. In his case, it was a mark he made while a member, and ultimately chairman, of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Oberstar was a champion of America's highways, waterways and public parks. But he took care of his sprawling northeastern Minnesota district first, a lesson he learned from his boss, John Blatnik, chairman of what was then the Public Works Committee. He succeeded Blatnik in 1974 and freely used earmarks to deliver tens of millions of dollars in federal aid to his district and state over the years.

But Oberstar was much more than a pork barrel politician. The son of a Slovakian miner who toiled in the vast open pit mines of Minnesota's Iron Range, he graduated from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul and got a master's degree in European studies from the College of Europe in Belgium, where he learned several of the six languages he spoke.

In fact, he had the distinction as the only member of Congress who spoke Creole, thanks for the four years he spent in Haiti in a volunteer program that preceded the Peace Corps, teaching Creole and French to U.S. Marines and Navy officers.

Although strongly pro-labor and generally supportive of his leadership, as would be expected by his district and the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Oberstar was able to work with and develop close friendships with Republicans. Former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, a leading conservative who had a home in Oberstar's district, said he and his wife usually voted for him.

Nevertheless, Oberstar didn't hesitate to go against his leadership. A faithful Catholic, he opposed abortion and was a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. He was also the first Minnesota Congressman to endorse Barack Obama for president, and I'm surprised that Obama didn't take my advice and appoint him ambassador to Haiti.

Oberstar had an international reputation in the world of transportation, where he championed the idea of "inter-modality," the idea of linking highway, air and high speed rail systems with urban buses, subways and bike paths -- he was an avid biker at the time of his death -- as a Washington Post obituary noted.

I was privileged to cover Oberstar as a Washington correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers in St. Paul and Duluth, and stayed in touch with him as Vice President Mondale's press secretary and editor of The Hill.

I interviewed him on his last day in Congress in January 2011, and while he admitted he was disappointed that the voters whose interests he had served so well had turned against him and said he would miss being in public life, showed no bitterness.

So I have no reluctance in adding him to the pantheon of figures who were natives of his district, including Bob Dylan, Roger Maris and Judy Garland, or of many other iconic Minnesotans like Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Harold Stassen, Charles Lindbergh, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Doctors Mayo and Paul Bunyan, to name a few.

Jim Oberstar was the quintessential congressman and I doubt we'll see his likes again.